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What happens when a mom of 24 children goes back to college?

Some advice from a nontraditional student with a nonlinear path

Holly Richardson holds up her diploma. She writes about the experience of going back to school after raising her children.
Holly Richardson

I am the oldest of six children in a family that valued education. I left high school at 16, after my junior year, and went to college. At age 19, I had an associate’s degree in nursing from BYU and started working as a registered nurse. Then, I followed the path that many women do: I married and became a mom. Again and again and again. I gave birth to four children, and my husband and I also adopted 20 children, from eight different countries, over a period of about 20 years. As you can imagine, I was really busy with things at home for quite some time.

I loved (and still love) being a mom. I have learned things as a mother that I believe I could learn no other way. Organization skills, networking, sales (did you ever try to “sell” a toddler on broccoli, or a teenager on chores? Mad sales skills, I tell ya), multitasking like a boss, budgeting, creativity, patience, work ethic (what’s a 40-hour work week? I have no idea).

Katherine Ellison in her book, “The Mommy Brain,” looked at the effects of a woman’s brain after becoming a mother. Certain factors are heightened, such as efficiency, resilience, emotional intelligence, motivation and perception. It’s been a tremendous blessing in my life to be a mother.

At the same time, I always felt like I wanted to #EmbraceTheAnd. I’ve always had other interests beyond my role of mother. I have no question that I am a better mother because of the “other” things I have learned and done. I love to learn, and, in fact, I believe lifelong learning to be a key trait for any leader.

I’ve accumulated and read hundreds, if not thousands, of books. I’ve gone to seminars and conferences. I’ve “learned by doing” by learning to blog (many years ago), learning to be a midwife, learning the political process to the point that I won a special election and served in the Utah House of Representatives for a while, and learning to “play” in the communication space — traditional media, digital media, writing, speaking, you name it, I love it.

I always knew I would go back to college someday and finish a bachelor’s degree. In May of 2014, 30 years after earning that first degree, I started back to school, pursuing a degree in communication with an emphasis in public relations.

It took a little bit of getting used to — assignments, deadlines, homework for Mom, not just kids. “What do you mean I have a 10-page paper due in two hours??” I completely missed quizzes in my first classes because I forgot to check deadlines online. Oops. I was worried when I started that it might be “too hard,” but quickly realized that the 30 intervening years had not been wasted.

Here are some of the things I found to be an advantage of being a “nontraditional” student:

  • I learned that I already knew a lot. All that reading and trying new things really paid off when I entered the more formal structure of a college class.
  • Knowing how to multitask well and organize many spinning plates was an extremely useful skill in going to school, raising a family and being involved in politics.
  • I learned that life experience helps anchor textbook learning.
  • I realized I could focus so much better than I was younger.
  • I was not afraid to participate, to ask a question or clarify.
  • I am much more adept at picking up cues from professors, like reading body language, paying attention to which items to study for a test and how to ask for help.
  • I learned that professors want students to be successful and if you talk with them, they will help you! Shocker, I know.
  • I took college seriously. I was there because I wanted to be and I was responsible for paying for all of it. You can be sure I was out looking and applying for scholarships and grants. And, I worked hard, because I did not want to have to retake a class.
  • Because I took it seriously, I was diligent in turning in my assignments, in taking feedback, making changes and studying for tests.
  • I learned when I could work with background noise and when I could not, then asked for family support and got it.
  • I did not assume that my social life was more important than my educational pursuits.
  • I found that it was so much easier than college had been when I was a teenager. Except for statistics. That was like learning a brand new, very foreign language. But even then, I worked hard, I got a tutor and I earned a B, first as an undergrad and then as a graduate student.
  • I knew what I wanted and was willing to work hard for it.
  • I did not need to “find myself.” While we all have an opportunity to make changes, learn and grow, I started back to school with a very solid sense of self.
  • Managing stress is very different as a 50-year-old than as a 20-year-old. So many things I would have really stressed about the first go-round weren’t even a blip on the radar this time.
  • My kids became better at doing homework, at asking for help and at studying for tests because they saw me do it.

Those first couple of years weren’t all rosy. Some of the assignments felt like meaningless minutiae. I wish there were more flexibility in waiving some basic classes for someone with 50 years of life experience. I was often the only one over 30 in my in-person classes. That was kind of awkward. Most of the time, I was older than my professors. Some of the kids assigned to do group projects with me did not appreciate working with someone who had other things in their life besides school and dating. Switching from writing in a casual, short-form blog style to long-form, annotated academic style was a bit of a struggle.

In the end, I graduated with honors, with that bachelor’s degree in April 2016. That August, I started a master’s degree program and finished that up in May 2018. Later that fall, I started a Ph.D. program, which honestly, is one of the hardest things I’ve ever made myself do. But, I’m already glad I did it. Now, I am one dissertation away from being Dr. Richardson. I’m not saying you have to go get a Ph.D., but if you are feeling drawn to learning more, whether in a formal program or not, do it.

Mark Twain had some good advice: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

There is a time and a season for everything. When it’s your season, go for it.

I did it. So can you.

Holly Richardson is the editor of Utah Policy Daily and a Deseret News columnist.